J. Konrad Schmidt: Elevating Emotions In Photographs, Part 1

J. Konrad Schmidt is a Hamburg based photographer and member of BFF, an organization of 500 freelance German photographers. His work has appeared in such publications as Elle (Germany), NEON, Selected Views and Cosmopolitan (Russia) among others. He has shot for clients like American Apparel, BACARDI, Philips Healthcare, Samsung and Radisson and has won numerous awards for his work. Konrad reveals to us the inspiration behind some of his photos and the thoughts behind setting up his shots in this candid interview.

Q: Will you tell us about your appeal to photography? Or why it’s a good fit for you?

A: In my early years in school, I was a bit of a misfit. I was always on my own – all the time just looking at things I wasn’t in contact with. Later I just kept looking. It was always making a dream come true in a photo. This is a bit of a past thing. About things I’ve learned and things I know – things I wanted to know. I think the work is a search for a certain look.

Q: You have a very specific style but what other photographers do you like or you look to for inspiration?

A: I visited an exhibition recently in Germany from Lillian Bassman. I love her work because she has a certain look of aesthetics that is completely gone. It’s from the past, this world and style of the 50s woman with the long neck and big hats and everything. This special way she did it analog. She had a special way of printing things to make it look like it’s a painting. And it’s very inspiring in a way that you just have this clear photo and make it a little arty again in the end. Sometimes I think there is so much communication and advertising that looks so cheap. People want to adore things. When you adore something, the price doesn’t matter. You could even do this with cheap things, but some don’t. At the end photography, the art stuff is a different world but in advertising I think the average of photography isn’t very good at the moment. Advertisers have to trust artists, and they have to be better than they are now.

Q: Do you consider yourself a fine art photographer or more commercial?

A: I would say my work is art with women. I don’t shoot men. I have no ideas for them. In a way it is fine art. I always try to make women look better than they thought they could. Like with this girl I was in Paris with once, she said the version of herself that she is now is that version I have invented.

Q: That’s quite a compliment. Are there any famous women or a female in particular that you would love to shoot?

A: There are many. Do you want a name?

Q: First one that comes to mind.

A: There is a lack of blonde girls in my portfolio. So a blonde model I would really like to shoot is Erin Heatherton. She is one of the “Victoria’s Secret Angels.” Another girl would be Joss Stone, the singer from Britain.

You can take the best photo of a no name model but it won’t be as “good“as a normal photo of someone everybody knows. These mechanisms are getting clearer to me. On one hand, I think I can play that game. I know when I’m asked to do it, it’s gonna be brilliant. So I’m just always writing emails trying to get people to say okay let’s do something.

Q: The copper images you provided us are stunning. Is it real copper?

A: Yes. I have a friend who is a metal artist and he had a connection with the metal yard. They had to order it in Bulgaria because it’s not easily available in Germany. I wanted this special surface and it’s not that easy to get. I had to put them in my car and drive like 650 km with them back to the set.

Q: What were these images show with? Did you want to highlight anything specific with this series or did you approach the concept from a different angle?

A: They were shot with the new S. I worked with the S2 for two years and now with the new S. The S2 felt like she CAN do it that good, but the new S now feels like it was MADE for being this good. It’s incredible. And the lenses are… wow!

Q: What lenses did you shoot these with?

A: Mostly I switch between the 70mm and the 120mm. Because the wide angle in the studio doesn’t make sense and wide angle in this fashion context doesn’t really work. The 70mm and the 120mm are very, very good lenses. There is a bit of freedom because you don’t have to worry about aperture. That’s a way I can work with no other system.

Q: Do you find The Leica S heavy?

A: The whole camera is heavy but it has to be! It’s a bit of training, but if you’re trying to be kind of still with your moving then a heavy camera is perfect.

Q: Tell us more about the concept behind the copper series. Was it inspired by the copper or the clothes? I know you are a big clothes guy.

A: Both. On one hand, I was interested in these metal reflections. The surface of metal is very interesting. There is this point where it gets a certain color when the light is perfect. And that’s the point where you can just see the color without the reflection. I’m really a fan of saying “we can do it in real and it will look great.”

I mean my idea was to work out the metal surface stuff and then to nearly match color it gets with the skin tone. With the jewelry and everything we tried to equip this metal theme a bit. Not this sexy and not this hard. I think when there is certain softness to the metal, and then it’s good.

Q: You can see it: Her skin tone there is definitely some copper reflected but I think the balance is good. Her skin tone is very accurate. Did you find that with the new S you were able to get a more accurate white balance?

A: I never shot on auto mode. I always set it manually. At the beginning I always make a little set up to see what it’s looking like “flash with  “flash” or “manual”. Then I would check it over at this place and see if the “flash” setting is good or maybe it should be a bit warmer. I just want to set up once and then just do it instead of changing everything afterwards.

Q: That’s great because so many photographers will just fix everything in post but it’s better to get it right in camera. Even if you still do Photoshop and you make adjustments you have a lot more freedom to make adjustments.

A: To be honest: We might make the skin a bit hotter but that’s it. That’s the photo. What you see is what has been there. But you have to have the time for that. You can also do it in Photoshop but you have to be able to do it good and then the money… Post can be expensive. Doing it right directly on set is much cheaper at the end! So I think that’s a bit of a connection to analog photography. If you’re good at analog photography then you will be in digital, too. Analog thinking actually…

Q: But what’s interesting with some of your photos is: A lot of them have something that you would think was a CGI effect. Like these fake dreamlike backgrounds. But you created them just by using lighting and textures and stuff, which is really interesting.

A: A friend of mine yesterday asked if I had imagined the copper to look like this before I did the shoot. I said: “No, I don’t have to…”

When you do this all the time, you just know how a certain light looks on a metal surface. And then you just add the color and know how it will turn out. It’s just visual training and a bit of fantasy.

Q: Do you find that shooting with S system that your retouching time is reduced compared other cameras?

A: The truth is I try to avoid retouching as far as possible. I take the picture and that’s the picture. I don’t like creating the whole picture by using Photoshop. I think when the picture is good, then Photoshop is just an extra. For sheer quality I think what you are doing in the picture is what the camera should make look bigger afterwards. Clearer. You put something in and what you get out is more than you thought.

Q: You are a part of the BFF organization and I know you do some lectures as well. Can you tell us about that?

A: The BFF is something like “the club of the best 500 freelance photographers in Germany“. It was founded over 40 years ago. In the times before the BFF in Germany, photography was a job to learn in a portrait studio. It used to just be: someone takes a photo and that was it.

But then high end advertising and high end money started to appear. The idea of the BFF was that being a photographer is an independent and artistic job – to give people the opportunity to study photography. So the BFF invented the photo study in Germany. Nearly everyone who is doing the big campaigns in Germany is a member. The best thing is, you have a pool of “companions“and it’s a great and easy way to keep in contact with people. I’ve done lectures in Frankfurt for upcoming photographers, for example and I will have a lecture in January at my former university. I’m always asked to talk because I’m so young, i think.

Q: I think you’ve done a lot for being under 30. I’m sure you want to be somewhere else but it’s very impressive. Most other photographers don’t have as much recognition until they are at least 30. To be in the position you are in is a big accomplishment!

A: Maybe… It’s a lot of hard work. And you really have to know what you want. There are so many things I would have done but have not done, yet. Some say it is important for me to have vacations, free time and friends and stuff. Sometime, when there are parties in Berlin, then I’m in Italy working for example…

I think if it wasn’t like this, I wouldn’t be where I am, now. Because all the emotions the pictures show are emotions that I have and I put them in the work and not in something else. I need it to be this way.

Thank you for your time, Konrad!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Konrad’s work, visit his website and Facebook page.